Zion Williamson, the star Duke freshman forward and likely future No. 1 NBA draft pick, has been cleared to play in Thursday night’s ACC tournament game against Syracuse in Charlotte.
So what’s the topic related to his return that immediately came to the minds of innumerable hoops fans? To quote Mars Blackmon, “It’s gotta be the shoes.”
Well, it remains to be seen what Williamson is wearing when he steps onto the court for the opening tip Thursday, but Duke dropped a strong hint several hours before the game. The Blue Devils’ basketball program tweeted out an image of the 18-year-old forward lacing up a pair of Kyrie Irving model Nike sneakers, and given that the tweet specifically gave the Celtics guard a shout-out, it appears likely Williamson will have them on when he plays.
Williamson has been out since Feb. 20, when he sprained his right knee on a bizarre play seconds into a nationally televised matchup against rival North Carolina. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson drove to his right across the lane and tried to spin back left, but the cloth side of his left shoe ripped away from the sole. Williamson slid to the floor grasping at his right knee and did not return to the game.
The freak accident caused an uproar over the NBA’s age restriction rule and the NCAA’s amateurism regulations, and it cost Nike’s stock nearly a dollar per share on Wall Street the next day, but it has since rebounded. Also drawn into the national conversation over the exploding shoe was Thunder forward Paul George, as it was a model from his signature line of Nikes that gave way.
George said at the time that he was “talking to Nike to see what went wrong and what happened with the shoe,” saying that he took “pride” in how “successful” his shoe had been, “not only in college but in the NBA.” George added, “I want to wish him all the best.”
The incident sparked some discussion of whether it made sense for Williamson, who is unusually bulky despite his considerable athleticism, to have been using a shoe designed for a relatively lithe perimeter player. That discussion resurfaced Thursday, with some viewing a shoe designed for a point guard such as Irving as even less of a fit for Williamson’s on-court style, as opposed to, say, a pair from the Nike line of the similarly sized LeBron James.
Earlier in the week, though, Sports Illustrated’s Jarrel Harris pointed out that Williamson had expressed a preference, “design-wise,” for Irving’s shoes over James’s and had worn the Kyrie 4 model shown Thursday “throughout most of the season.” Harris added that Williamson “has worn the LeBron 16 this season but prefers sleeker models.”
Either way, the one sure thing was that Williamson would be clad in Nikes, because the sports-apparel giant has had a contract with Duke since the early 1990s. So it appears that Williamson is going with the shoe in which he feels most comfortable, which makes sense given that he’ll be trying to knock the rust off his game.
Before the injury, Williamson averaged 21.6 points for the No. 5 Blue Devils with 8.8 rebounds. He was shooting better than 68 percent from the floor and left NBA scouts salivating over his explosiveness, keen floor awareness and refined scoring ability.
Duke began the night of his injury as the top-ranked team in the country, but fell to the Tar Heels, 88-72, at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Without Williamson, the Devils (26-5, 14-4 ACC) have lost three of their past six games, including a road loss at Virginia Tech and another loss to North Carolina to end the regular season.
Duke faces Syracuse on Thursday night in a conference quarterfinal. The Blue Devils, the tournament’s third seed, have not played in six days thanks to byes in the bracket’s first two rounds. If they can unseat second-seeded North Carolina and top-seeded Virginia for the ACC title, or even an appearance in the championship game, they could earn a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Orange upset Duke earlier this year at home, in a dramatic 95-91 overtime win. Williamson had 35 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. He sat out Duke’s other game against Syracuse with the knee injury.